Amidst the celebration of the games guys play, we should always keep in mind the accomplishments of our superb female athletes. One of my favorite teams, male or female, is the USA national women’s rugby team, known as the Women Eagles.
I first came to know the team back in the 1990s, for the very good reason that they won the first-ever Women’s Rugby World Cup, in 1991. They finished second in the two subsequent World Cups.
Women’s rugby began to take root and grow in the early 1970s largely through university teams in the United States. The four programs most often credited with launching women’s rugby in that era were Colorado State University, University of Colorado, University of Illinois and University of Missouri.
They were global trailblazers in many respects. It wasn’t an easy process, anywhere. There was controversy. In hindsight all the fuss seems quite odd, but it was real. And, fortunately, the women persisted.
As the college players graduated, they began to set up club teams around the country. When the USA Rugby Football Union was formed in 1975, a separate women’s board of directors was established to guide development of the women’s wing of the sport.
It took about 10 more years for something akin to a national women’s team to be put together. In 1985 an American team played a series of matches throughout England and France, finishing the trip undefeated. The first official national USA team took the field in 1987, with the first of a series of annual test matches against Canada. The American women remained undefeated in that series for 10 years.
Momentum grew internationally. In 1990 the USA national team traveled to New Zealand to compete in the historic Women’s World Rugby Festival, finishing with a 3-1 record. The one loss was to the New Zealand team.
The first women’s Rugby World Cup followed a year later, in 1991, in one of the great cathedrals of rugby: Cardiff Arms Park in Wales. The US women came roaring out of the gate, shutting out their first three opponents while scoring a total of sixty points themselves. They went up over New Zealand in their semi-final match, 7-0.
In the final, the Women Eagles etched a line in the history of rugby by besting England, 16-9. It seemed fitting that the American women, having done so much to push the women’s game into the spotlight, had taken the first championship.
A dynasty has developed at that elite level, with New Zealand’s Black Ferns winning the last four World Cups, including 2010 in London. The lady Kiwis were a quick study. I’m told that they only had their first international match in 1990.
The women’s game in the US continues to grow, expand, and move from strength to strength. In the last 10 years, a second collegiate division has been formed, as well as a high school division and an Under-19 team. The US also became the first nation to elect a woman as president of its Rugby Union.
As with the Black Ferns, dynasties seem to have developed. The last six American collegiate title games have been match-ups between the same two schools — Penn State University (the Nittany Lions of my home state of Pennsylvania) and Stanford University (the Cardinals of my home state of California). For the last seven years the championship has been played in Palo Alto, the Cardinals’ backyard.
I’m looking forward to having opportunities to see the great women’s rugby here in my own backyard.